Catalan President Artur Mas said he wants Scots to vote in favor of independence in their Sept. 18 referendum, because that would spur the European Union to consider ways to keep breakaway nations within the bloc.
“My personal preference as a Catalan citizen and a European citizen would be for a vote in Scotland for independence,” Mas, 58, said in an interview yesterday in the 15th-century government palace in Barcelona, the Catalan capital. “If independence goes on, they will have to negotiate with the European Union the terms of the situation of Scotland in the European Union, and that would be useful for Catalonia.”
The parallel independence movements in Catalonia and in Scotland pose a challenge to the EU’s established model under which member states retain most power. European officials including outgoing Commission President Jose Barroso have cast doubt on assertions by Mas and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that their respective nations could remain in the EU and, in Catalonia’s case, the euro, insisting they would have to apply for membership, just like Turkey.
Mas, who plans to hold a non-binding referendum on Catalan independence on Nov. 9, said he doesn’t believe that the central governments in Spain or the U.K. would intervene to veto an application to join the EU made by a newly independent Catalonia or Scotland.
The most realistic scenario, he said, “is to open up negotiations between both governments and both countries with the EU in order to establish a win-win situation for everybody.”
The planned independence votes in Catalonia and Scotland are sending ripples across Europe, raising the prospect of the breakup of nation states that have been built over centuries. Opponents say independence would increase the risk of a new wave of instability as Europe recovers from the sovereign debt crisis, while lessening the clout of the nations left behind and hurting the economic outlook of the independent states.
Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, is the economic powerhouse of Spain, boasting a 193 billion-euro ($263 billion) economy, about the same size as Finland’s. Output per head is 17 percent above the EU average, whereas Spain as a whole is 5 percent below the average.
Independence advocates say that Catalonia is over-taxed by Madrid and under-represented. The region, which accounts for about 20 percent of the Spanish economy, transfers tax revenue equivalent to 8 percent of gross domestic product to the central government each year, Mas said.
“We could be Austria, Denmark or Finland,” Mas said. “But we don’t have enough tools.”
Along with the desire to take control of its economic destiny, Mas said his region’s claim for nationhood is based on 1,000 years of cultural tradition that includes the Catalan language and a groundswell of popular support. While polls show a majority of Catalans want the right to decide their own future, he said it isn’t clear whether most would also opt for independence, so he needs to hold the November “consultation” vote to find out.
Barcelona is decked in the red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag. It hangs everywhere: from apartment balconies, emblazoned on shop fronts and worn on lapel buttons.
Yet Catalonia has proved a magnet for migrants from other parts of Spain and beyond seeking economic opportunities. Almost 16 percent of the population is from outside Spain, while 70 percent of residents have their origins outside of Catalonia, “a real melting pot,” said Mas.
Mas said his vision for an independent Catalonia includes the EU itself evolving into a federal superstate along the lines of the U.S. That federalist prospect spurred the British government’s opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. Juncker was confirmed as commission president today in a vote by the European Parliament.
Asked if he thought Juncker would help promote his vision of a more centralized EU, Mas said: “I don’t think so.”
“In Europe, they see this process as a domestic effort, a Spanish domestic effort, or at least they try to say so,” Mas said. “They don’t want to have big and real problems with the Spanish state and the way to be more comfortable in this sense is to be hands off.”
Mas’s push for more autonomy will heat up in coming months. Catalan National Day on Sept. 11 will probably see a mass demonstration in favor of independence on the streets of Barcelona as in recent years, he said. That comes one week before Scots hold their own vote.
Also in September, the regional Catalan parliament is due to approve a law authorizing the vote, potentially drawing a legal challenge from the Spanish government. While Mas could call a regional election as a de facto referendum if his plans are blocked by Madrid, he said all his focus is now on the vote set for November.
“There is not a plan B,” Mas said.